Golden Girls

A bygone era of beauty and community lives on at Dee’s Golden Door.

By Nancy Rommelmann November 9, 2009 Published in the December 2009 issue of Portland Monthly

She slips into Dee’s Golden Door at the same time each Monday morning. Slender and stylish, she’s north of 70, though by how much, one doesn’t ask. It’s not important; the reason she’s here has less to do with age than with an era—a time when the weekly hair appointment at a place like Dee’s was a commitment as ironclad as the resulting hairstyle. This morning, the ritual involves transforming a head of sparse, straight white hair into a corona of hibiscus-colored curls, the kind of five-layered, back-combed, hours-in-the-making style that is as far from do-it-yourself as one can get.

If one can get it at all. Which is why the woman, who calls everyone “honey” (and, because she’s asked that her name not be used, will here be known as “Honey”), is grateful that Janelle, her hairdresser of many years who’s now retired, comes to the salon on NE Fremont Street one morning a week just to do Honey’s hair.

“You can’t find people who can do this anymore,” Honey says, as Janelle meticulously sprays the curls and swoops them into place. “And she’s perfect at it.”

Honey is not alone in her loyalty to stylists who can still create the beehives and bouffants, the finger waves and barrel curls that make the pageboys and chignons of the Mad Men ladies look positively wash-and-go. The four women who work at Dee’s have been confecting these styles for more than a hundred years, collectively, for a clientele whose average age now hovers around 80.

“We’re a salon that does roller-sets; a lot of places don’t,” says Nancy Tilton, who started working at Dee’s in 1974, when she was 20, and bought the salon from the husband of its namesake, Doris “Dee” McDowell, 10 years later. Wearing Gloria Vanderbilt jeans and tennis shoes, her brown hair in a bowl-shaped bob, Nancy never stops moving, rarely stops talking, is always alert to who’s walking in, who might need a lift home, and who missed an appointment.

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Nancy Tilton washes Sandra Seet’s hair.

“We had one lady who didn’t show up, so I called her son and said, ‘I think your mom had another stroke,’” Nancy says. It turned out, the woman had. Nancy wasn’t surprised that she was the first person to figure it out. “We see these ladies every week,” she says. “They don’t see their kids every week.”

While younger clients are sometimes in the mix, especially during wedding and prom season, when brides and high school girls like to play princess-for-a-day in tiara-adorned updos, most of Dee’s customers can measure their patronage to the salon in decades. The styling and pampering are one lure. Women do not, after all, reach an age when they stop wanting to look attractive; nor do they stop enjoying the sensation of fingers running through their hair, which stylist Barbara Godinez, 65, does for a 92-year-old woman seated in a far chair, her eyes closed in luxuriation. But Nancy knows that the ladies are here as much for the company as the care.

“Sometimes they have no one at home to look good for, but this gets them out of the house,” she says. “It’s like hanging out at the bar—they even sometimes come an hour early!”

They arrive five days a week, some under their own steam, others driven by husbands and grown grandchildren. Saturday mornings, the small salon buzzes with activity—there are tomatoes from Barbara’s garden ready for the taking on the reception desk, and books for the borrowing on a shelf alongside the hooded hair dryers, and colorful dishcloths crocheted by a customer for sale ($2 apiece) in a box by the door. The air is filled with women’s voices, talking not as the girls do on Sex and the City, about bars, hookups, and shoes they can’t afford, but about cancer scares, failing memories, and whether to have an estate sale of mom’s stuff. But there are also the trips (to Las Vegas), the recollections (about the customer who insisted on a tint so blue she earned the nickname “The Smurf”), and the occasional behind-the-hand whisper (about the silly woman who paid $90 for a leg wax, when really, you can get one for $35).

While there is the odd hound-dog chin at Dee’s, and a few eyes are clouded with cataracts, the ladies look remarkably chic, dressed in neat pantsuit ensembles with pretty brooches and accent scarves. Yet they also look old, something that, at least for a certain stripe of the American population, has become, if not an embarrassment, something to be avoided for as long as possible. Consider the summer/fall issue of New Beauty, a 300-page glossy magazine that advises women to use the wrinkle-fillers Juvéderm and Restylane prophylactically, and tells them that the eyelift is not an indulgence; it’s maintenance. And while the stylists at Dee’s are not against new methods of beautification—some of them have had laser hair removal and permanent eyeliner tattooing, and not one of them plans to let her hair go gray—they have seen the battle against age waged and lost. They also know the craving for beauty can, perhaps, be satisfied in other ways. 

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Customers Yvonne Potter (left) and Beulah Dennis

Image: Daniel Root

“The ‘beauty’ part of the beauty salon is coming in and being with people,” Nancy says, adding that she thinks it best for women “to age with a little grace.”

“I had a customer who came in all black-and-blue, and I thought, ‘Have you been in a car wreck?’” she says. “She’d had a face-lift. Let me tell you, a face-lift at 80 is not a pretty thing.”

Janelle says she understands that many women today do their beautifying behind closed doors, pretending they haven’t had any work done. Dee’s Golden Door, she notes, is a vestige of a time when women were more open (at least with each other) about their regimens and, in turn, their lives. “The salon had the social element, the gossip; saying things in front of God and everyone,” she says. “You can be real here.”

Dee’s enduring appeal is confirmed by Lotus. Thirty years younger than most of Dee’s clients, Lotus is vivacious, the sort of gal one might describe with the word “va-va-voom.” She has big green eyes and lavender eye shadow and Sophia Loren cheekbones. Her hair is the kind that many women, of any age, would kill for: a sun-kissed honey hue that’s helped along by Linda, who’s been styling Lotus’s hair for years.

“It’s so nice to come here—it’s relaxing,” Lotus says. “It’s nice when someone really cares how your week went.”

Watching Linda style Lotus’s hair is like watching a painter at work. Some things look like mistakes, such as back-combing that results in a vertical froth so tall, Lotus could hide the People magazine she’s reading within it. But eventually the manipulations become more precise and the curls take on real structure. There is a sweep of bangs, a high crown of loose curls, and the spraying of lacquer into a style that might be pegged to the early 1960s.

Linda hands Lotus a mirror and watches her client admire herself from all angles. “I get a lot of compliments on my hair,” says Lotus, writing Linda a check. “Not only from women, but young girls, and men. It’s a work of art.” That they will repeat this process next week—for the cost of $18 before tip—needn’t even be discussed.

“It’s soft and feminine,” says Linda, finishing her work with a final blast of hair spray.

“All the things you want to look when you walk out of here,” Lotus adds, touching up her lipstick before she goes. “Why would I change it?”

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